PhD Findings (3): Being Local

(This is the final in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.)


There’s often a tension in academic analyses of the Middle East between viewing it as a region – that is, trying to generalise processes that happen in one place to other contexts by virtue of their social, cultural, and historical similarities – and a more localist viewpoint, in which whatever is happening is described as unique and specific to its context (most often, that of a given nation-state). From one perspective, Arabic-speaking societies have enough in common for conclusions applying to one of them to apply to others as well; from another, more contextual nuance is required, and each society or state viewed as a unique product of its historical and political circumstances. Either the Arab Spring is the Arab Spring, and has and will lead to changes everywhere… Or it’s just a specific, local phenomenon, the 2010-11 Karamah Revolution a product of Tunisia’s particular social and economic hardships, or the same for the January 25 Revolution in Egypt. Similar dynamics, some similar sentiments, but ultimately very different beasts.

Both approaches can be useful in different situations, when looking at different sorts of data or to put forward particular types of arguments. But what I find more intriguing is the symbolic power of these perspectives. While grand ideologies such as Pan-Arabism may no longer be very prominent since the eclipse of Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab nationalist projects in the 1960s, there’s no denying a sense of implicit commonality between Middle Eastern and North African societies – if not through identity, through language; if not through language, through shared history, geo-politics, socio-cultural norms. But always, against this, there are also localist tendencies. Each country, each region, each ethno-religious group can also be viewed on its own terms. Jordanians are not the same as Palestinians, or Lebanese, or certainly not Egyptians. They have their own history, their own traditions, their own characteristic identity. Their interests and needs are different from those of their neighbours. They have their own desires and aspirations.

In Jordan, localism is a highly politicised issue. This is not, of course, something unique among Arab countries; but Jordan’s particular historical and political situation – as a ‘new’ nation-state entity developed after the fall of the Ottoman empire, as well as its status as a strategic buffer on the borders of Palestine and Israel – means that this aspect has been studied extremely well. The loyalty of “East Bankers” – that is, inhabitants of Jordan whose ethnic origins can be traced to the eastern bank of the Jordan River, as opposed to (especially) the Palestinian West Bank – is believed to be a crucial element in Jordan’s success and stability as a state. The Hashemite monarchy and its associated institutions dispense favours – jobs, subsidies, contracts and so forth – which in turn guarantee the support of Jordanian citizens, including prominent families with Bedouin lineages and those belonging to minorities who had historically supported Hashemite royal rule in Jordan, such as the Circassians. Clientelism and royal patronage are at the heart of this state system – what Tariq Tell names the “Hashemite compact“: a form of rule that is both spatially localised and ideologically localist in that it seeks to sustain itself through relationships with the ‘traditional’ inhabitants of one particular area only.

In his book Colonial Effects, Joseph Massad has demonstrated at length how this form of rule implicitly excludes anyone who isn’t an “East Banker” – predominantly, the considerable numbers of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Andrew Shryock’s work is in a very similar vein, though he focuses more on mechanisms of inclusion rather than exclusion: the process of documenting the oral histories and genealogies of Bedouin lineages as a form of Jordanian nationalism, or the legacy of King Hussein (1935-1999) with his cultivation of “conflicting constituencies” all closely connected on the royal persona.

But there’s an important cultural dimension to these processes as well. Exclusionary localism doesn’t just crop up in the political sphere; it pervades, in different ways, much of Jordanian cultural production, from royal iconography and public monuments (see e.g. this article by Elena Corbett) to entertainment such as music and films – beginning with the first Jordanian-produced film, Struggle in Jerash (1957), which according to George Potter is an excellent example of an attempt to assert a distinctly Jordanian nationalist narrative. (Potter views it as a direct response to the tumultuous situation in Jordan in the 1950s, when pan-Arab nationalist movements and parties were in ascendancy and the Hashemite monarchy in heavy crisis.) It is a kind of “soft power” – though not necessarily consciously initiated for political ends; still, it builds on the same kind of narratives, and serves the same kind of ends, as localism in politics.

Poster for صراع في جرش / Struggle in Jerash (1957), the “first Jordanian film.” Image via 7iber; the entire film is also available on YouTube here.

Very similar ideas pervade Jordanian non-government radio today. Nationalism is everywhere: there are entire stations, such as Nashama FM, dedicated to playing what is known as “national” or “patriotic” music, and others such as Radio Hala draw heavily on Jordanian nationalist symbols and icons, with the flag of Jordan at a prominent place in the studio and a distinct green-red-black-white colour scheme. Stations run jingles in which they define themselves as urduniyye “Jordanian” and hāšimiyye “Hashemite” – making no secret of where their loyalties lie. Projects such as the “Our Voice Is One” memorial programme, run in honour of the fighter pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh captured and executed by the IS / Daesh in Syria, also have explicit nationalist and patriotic goals: bringing the nation together, representing the emotions shared by “all Jordanians,” and so forth.


Video from the Radio Hala studio webcam, reporting on the Jordanian local elections on 15 August 2017. It presents a very carefully crafted nationalist environment: note the colour scheme (including the two presenters’ polo shirts!), Jordanian flag in the background, etc. The bagpipe-heavy music playing in the background is also indicative of localist tendencies in Jordanian radio. (Video accessible here, via the Radio Hala Facebook page.)

Choice of language also plays a part in producing local authenticity. Most live programming on non-government radio stations in Jordan uses colloquial Arabic – though of a very specific kind: a colloquial that can be identified as Jordanian, or more properly Ammani, once gender differences are taken into account. This of course makes perfect sense if we assume the station wants to cultivate a local audience, for whom a local Jordanian dialect will be a familiar and comfortable way of communicating. But because dialect is linked to locality, it again implies boundaries, dfferentiation, ideologies of inclusion and exclusion. Who can lay claim to a “Jordanian” type of speech? Is it only those who speak this way, right now? Those who were brought up with a Jordanian dialect? Or those for whom this kind of language is part of their heritage, and can trace their ancestry to the East Bank several generations back?

There is, though, an important contrast between promoting and exaggerating “local” dialect for ideological purposes, and genuine attempts to find an idiom appropriate for the informal live radio setting. The latter is, I think, the case with Radio al-Balad, the Amman-based community radio station which forms a rare stronghold of media and journalistic professionalism in Jordan. Its presenters speak in a form of colloquial Arabic that is identifiably Jordanian, presumably close to their personal conversational idiolect, yet aimed squarely at engaging with listeners in a communicative manner and not shying away from specialist or formal language when this is necessary. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the language of – for example – the “patriotic songs” (aġānī waṭaniyya) music genre, where nationalist localism is heavily exaggerated in the lyrics – both in the themes (praising Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy, the Jordanian army and so on) and the actual form of the language, from the heavily strained ‘ayns to the ‘authentic’ g‘s and ‘s characteristic of East Bank and Bedouin dialects of Arabic. So there’s a rather tricky linguistic balance to maintain between “being local” for inclusive, community-oriented purposes, and promoting an exclusionary localist agenda.

Ṭārat ṭayyāra min fōg az-Zarga (“A Plane Flew Above Zarqa“), performed by Omar Abdallat. A prime example of the aġānī waṭaniyya genre. Note also the heavily militarised aesthetic of the video, another hallmark of contemporary Jordanian ethnic nationalism.

But it’s not just localist and nationalist ideas that are susceptible to this kind of boundary maintenance. One example is how Jordanian non-government radio approaches religion – specifically, Islam. Most stations assume their audience to be, predominantly, made up of Sunni Muslims; occasionally devout Muslims, as with most Islamic programmes and radio stations, but always an audience that is interested in Muslim religious and cultural affairs and holds Islamic values dear.

This is why, for example, Radio Hala broadcast the experiences of its famous host Muhammad al-Wakeel when he made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 2015. Or why, during cold weather fronts in winter (munḳafaḍāt), snowstorms and flooding are framed as acts of God and wholly dependent on his will (conveniently avoiding the question how such events are made worse in large part by the sorry state of Jordan’s infrastructure). You should, apparently, share Muslim values and convictions to be properly included in the audience – to be a part of the Jordanian public for whom radio programmes are produced, and for whom non-government stations broadcasts. Such statements naturalise a Muslim identity in both religious and cultural terms, drawing upon common beliefs and metaphors that set up a clear boundary around those they seek to include. It forms a very powerful idea of a social group, conceptualised and unified through acts of language. And it is not very accepting of non-Muslims, or atheists, or those who might not share normative Islamic values and convictions.

A photo-graphic collage announcing Radio Hala’s “comprehensive coverage” of the Hajj, the Muslim “greater pilgrimage” to Mecca. Via Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page. One among many examples of assuming a fundamentally Muslim audience, or at least one interested in Muslim religio-cultural matters, on part of Jordanian non-government radio stations.

Another example are morning service programmes. This type of radio programme is built around the concept of real people calling into the radio stations, with concrete problems that they face in their everyday lives and hope the host might be able to solve – broken water pipes, electricity cuts, rubbish collections, job applications, and many others. The idea of authenticity takes on a whole new dimension here: it is now a valuable resource, a sort of cultural capital which broadcasters can use to compete with each other and assert their legitimacy. They are linking up with real people, solving real problems, providing real services. They are not just a bunch of ideologues spouting rhetorical nonsense. They have an authentic basis for their popularity. They take care of people, sometimes better than the Jordanian state itself.

The flip side of this is that service programmes can be seen as basically exploiting people’s problems and suffering for entertainment purposes. This is hardly a new phenomenon; ‘reality’ talk shows, especially those on U.S. television, have been at it for decades. No matter how staged the actual encounters on such shows might be, the logic is still fundamentally the same. But on Jordanian radio, I think it’s interesting to think about this exploitation of authenticity in parallel with other localist and particularist ideas that pervade the media sector. These are real people whose authenticity is exploited to promote the persona of the host; but they are also Jordanians. Service programme hosts don’t just serve ‘people,’ in some abstract, undefined manner. They address, and serve, the nation. Their rhetorical excursions into discussing the problems of Palestinians, or Egyptian migrant workers, or Syrian refugees, are just that: excursions. The bulk of the problems they face is still home-grown. They might criticise the state, but they still operate within its basic logic – with its accompanying ideas of militant ethnic nationalism, clientelism, and royal patronage.


Making media content stand out is a considerable challenge. Linking it to people’s lives, to their authentic lived experiences, is one viable strategy for carving a space in a very saturated media market. Katharina Nötzold and Judith Pies call this the “going local” tendency, which they see as an explicit policy on part of national media outlets in the Arab world – Lebanese and Jordanian TV stations, for example – in competition with international and satellite television channels.

But “going local” is not just an economic strategy, or a desperate attempt to captivate attention-fatigued audiences. On the thematic level, it intersects with very relevant ideas about nations, power, and politics in the contemporary Arab world. Is each state, each national media field a context for itself? Or can they be analysed together and compared? Or is it, ultimately, more important to look at how ideas about particularism, localism, exclusivity of each particular context impact how these media operate? There is scope for  intriguing discussions here, especially regarding the mutually enabling relationship of media on the one hand and state and economic power on the other. These have often been analysed in material terms – i.e., where the money comes from – or on the level of information flows (outlet X exists because of Y, therefore it will only say what is agreeable to Y), but more rarely looking at less obvious linguistic and discursive devices.

And these devices are important. They are, as I’ve shown in this post and in my PhD, very effective at making boundaries: delimiting groups, defining insiders and outsiders. They can be very powerful in making people feel welcome – or not. Local media work for local citizens, provide services for the community and so forth; but in doing so they simultaneously transmit ideas of what it means to be local, to be true, authentic, genuinely deserving of their attention. Choice of words and language plays a big role in this – in including people, enabling participation, making interactions count. The form, the quality of communication matters, as much if not more as the content.

The discursive terrain that media producers, radio or otherwise, have to navigate is complex and difficult. Language needs to be approached with care, with good awareness about precisely what kinds of effects it might have. This is what inspires me to do my research and continue with it: the hope that it can provide new insights, and help people with their own linguistic and discursive projects. And debate, of course, the vagaries of the world today, and how to act – with deeds and words – to change it for the better.

PhD Findings (3): Being Local

PhD Findings (1): Radio and Power

(This is the first in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here.)


When one is speaking in a public setting, there are a lot of choices that need to be made. This is true for Jordanian radio, as my PhD shows, and as I will elaborate later on in this post. But it’s true, self-evident even, every time you’re talking to an audience of some kind. You might imagine you are speaking more spontaneously or informally when ranting about your latest favourite TV series to your colleagues at work than when assigning work tasks to them at a meeting, for example. That in itself is a meaningful choice: in any language, there is a great variety of resources at your disposal – particular words, sentence structures, grammar, ways of pronunciation and intonation – that sound more or less informal or formal, relaxed or stilted, spontaneous or rehearsed.

This is part of what linguistic anthropologists mean by the term indexicality. Words don’t just ‘mean what they mean’; they also have other meanings lurking behind them. They convey ideas of what the speaker is like at that particular moment. Are they cheerful and relaxed and enthusiastic? Do they project confidence about what they say? Do they stammer and stumble and don’t make much sense? (And is this just because they’re nervous? Or are they maybe doing so intentionally, for some nefarious purpose – like protesting a task they didn’t enjoy doing by giving a half-assed report on it?) All of these interpretations are based to a significant extent in the way we speak and use language.

Over time, these momentary impressions congeal into more stable ideas about personality and character. A person who can’t give coherent reports might be seen as lacking confidence, or just inept at giving reports; or (more grimly) inept at their job, period (if giving reports is the only “front” through which their colleagues see them). Or they might be seen as carefree, relaxed, stodgy, arrogant, confident, and so forth.

A poem about uptalk, a sarcastic take on an earlier poem by Taylor Mali (see it at The stereotypes which the original poem reproduces are deconstructed rather ruthlessly by Mark Liberman in this 2005 Language Log post.

Sometimes, ideas like this get attached not to individuals, but to social groups. In English, stereotypes about “uptalk” – or rising intonation at the end of sentences – are directed at whole generations of young people supposedly lacking the confidence to speak without making every sentence a question. In Arabic, with its immensely rich repertoire of different dialect forms, the best examples of such stereotypes are pronunciations of particular sounds. The qāf  ( ق, voiceless uvular stop [q] in IPA) is probably the most well-known of these. In Jordan, the pronunciation of this sound carries clear connotations not just regarding a person’s ethnicity and gender (Jordanian men pronounce this as g, for example; urban, female speakers might use the glottal stop [ʔ] instead), but also their personal characteristics – ‘masculine’ and ‘Jordanian’ pronunciations being associated with strength, aggression, local flavour, rural authenticity, Bedouin values and so forth, while ‘feminine’ or ‘non-Jordanian’ pronunciations stand for sophistication, urban values, but also delicacy and weakness.

Language can thus be a very powerful tool. It can promote ideas about what certain people – women, men, Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Muslims, non-Muslims – are really like. About their similarities, but also their differences. And these differences all too often translate into inequalities – that is, differences in power.

On Jordanian radio, there are countless examples of this. There is the male-female divide: there are certain stereotypical sounds that should, normally, be part of the repertoire of a woman speaking Ammani Arabic (which is the broadly accepted ‘standard’ on Jordanian non-government radio stations). But these same sounds are also ideologically compromised: they are ‘soft,’ ‘delicate,’ even ‘weak’ – compared to their ‘strong’ and ‘forceful’ equivalents in male speech, and in rural Jordanian and Bedouin dialects. Further, the very fact that women’s speech does not include some of these characteristically ‘Jordanian’ sounds makes them compromised as Jordanians. It may be true that they project an urban, sophisticated identity – but it is also an identity that falls precariously on the border of Jordanian national identity as it has been promoted by the Jordanian state and monarchy for at least the last 40 years. Women aren’t quite equal nationals; they aren’t quite equal citizens. And day-to-day radio language seems to conform to this stereotype. (This article by Salam al-Mahadin sets the issues out well, and in much greater detail.)

But it is not just words and their pronunciations that are implicated in power relationships. Take, for example, the well-known genre of “service programmes” (barāmiž ḳadamātiyya), in which listeners call in to radio stations to request some sort of mediation or intervention in their relationship with government agencies or other institutions. The most famous Jordanian service programme host, Muhammad al-Wakeel, takes full advantage of his position to present himself as a heroic figure: solving citizens’ problems, always being there when he’s needed, doing what needs to be done to make the lives of Jordanians better. The mayor may not respond; the ministry may ignore you; but al-Wakeel is always there for you. When all else fails, he’ll be the one to get that pothole fixed, or your electricity re-connected, or those pesky Syrian refugees shunted out of an overloaded local school. Because he’s just that amazing.

Again, this is about power: it is al-Wakeel who has the connections, the wit, the clout to solve these issues. And empathically not his listeners. The service programme host is the ultimate authority. If his callers complain, or claim an issue still hasn’t been resolved despite numerous phone calls, or want a bit more detail about a platitude an official has just given in response to a problem on the air… well, surely it’s they that are wrong. al-Wakeel can, and will, solve everything. Don’t believe that, and you might as well not even bother calling in.


Muhammad al-Wakeel, the great broadcast hero of the ‘Jordanian people.’

It is through language that these ideas are constructed and reinforced: through the service programme host’s daily addresses, his (yes, always his; there are no female service programme hosts) conversations with callers, his posts and interactions on social media. Another important aspect here is the construction of audiences. Not just who is actually listening to the radio programme at any given moment – and despite some attempts at measuring ratings, in Jordan that’s still a bit too elusive – but who should be listening, or better yet who you imagine should be listening. al-Wakeel is always at pains to point out that his programme is for solving the problems of Jordanians. It is the “Jordanian citizen” that encounters problems that need to be solved.

Or, for another example, take Islamic advice shows, a type of programme where people call the radio station in order to ask a learned Islamic scholar advice about proper pious Muslim conduct – prayers, inheritance law, interpretations of verses of the Qur’an, and so forth. This is a programme meant for “Muslims.” “Every Muslim” should do this, should believe that. “Most people in Jordan,” the radio shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi once declared on his Fatāwa (“Fatwas”) programme on Hayat FM, “follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic law.” Well, obviously not those Jordanians who aren’t Muslim, or who may not care about which maḏhab they follow… but those aren’t supposed to be listening anyway. Language includes and excludes, makes it clear who is welcome to listen and who is not. Who is accepted – has status enough to be in the audience, to be a participant – and who will always remain on the margins, disempowered, excluded even from the otherwise so utterly informal and relaxed conversations on non-government radio.


But let’s turn back now to my previous examples of indexicality, and how it’s connected to what people sound and seem like at any particular moment. That is the key: at any particular moment. There may be stereotypes – “women speech,” the speech of “broadcaster heroes” – but these are not set in stone. Change the language, even momentarily, and you’ll challenge the stereotype. And all at once the linguistic authorities don’t seem quite as powerful as they used to be.

Linguistic anthropologists absolutely adore studying this. There are tons of examples, from all around the world, of how identities – ethnic, racial, gender – can be challenged and problematised simply through using language in creative and unexpected ways. So it is with transgender hijra in India, who refer to themselves and other hijras with either masculine or feminine pronouns depending on who they’re talking to and what they’re talking about (see here; PDF). This article (PDF) by Elaine Chun explores how this is done by young Korean-Americans who appropriate African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to strategically manipulate stereotypical assumptions about language and race. These are all ways in which marginalised groups can use language to resist and subvert discourses of power.

On Jordanian radio, a close parallel is the occasional challenge to male and female speech norms. Women are stereotypically ‘soft’ and ‘delicate,’ simply due to the way they speak. But if they speak differently, they can perhaps give off a different impression. So for example, in the memorial programme a number of Jordanian radio stations ran on 5 February 2015 in honour of the pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh recently executed by the IS in Syria, one female host, Randa Karadsheh, strategically appropriated male language by pronouncing certain words with the form g for qāf – not something she would ordinarily do, but a practice which fit perfectly well with the patriotic, militant atmosphere promoted by Jordanian media after al-Kasasbeh’s death. And it was a powerful claim over Jordanian identity by a female speaker no longer compromised through her association with non-Jordanian sounds, but fully integrated into the nation… at least for the moment.

Randa Karadsheh from Radio Hala (left), with co-host Samir Masarweh from University of Jordan Radio (right), during the Ṣawtunā wāḥid (“Our Voice Is One”) memorial programme, 5 February 2015. Note also Karadsheh’s undeniable visual claim to Jordanian national identity with the red-checkered shmagh (‘keffiyeh’) she is wearing (in contrast with her male co-host). Screencap from this YouTube video.

Changing your pronunciation can mount a subtle challenge to power. Karadsheh is still doing so from a relatively privileged position: she is a broadcaster, someone whose words and ideas will inevitably be put front and centre in any radio programme that she hosts. The issue gets more interesting when the audience gets involved as well. On-air time is valuable, and it will always be allocated sparsely to non-broadcasters. But there are different ways in which this allocation can be managed.

Service programmes are again a great example of this. They field a huge amount of calls, allowing large numbers of listeners to participate every day. Patterns in the management of this participation easy to observe. al-Wakeel, as mentioned, is controlling, authoritative, the Great Hero of Jordanian broadcasting, subsuming everyone and everything under his dramatic arc of Solving People’s Problems. His callers have little scope for debating their problems at length, or critiquing aspects other than those that al-Wakeel seizes upon.

But there are other possibilities. One example is Hani al-Badri, the host of the Wasaṭ al-Balad programme on Radio Fann. He still solves problems – but the way in which he does so, the way in which he talks about his actions and engages with his audience, is fundamentally different from al-Wakeel’s. al-Badri jokes with his callers; he makes cynical remarks about government figures. And, more important, he allows his callers to do so in turn. When, for instance, a media furore erupted in December 2014 following a number of disrespectful and sexist remarks made in the Jordanian Parliament towards deputy Hind al-Fayez on part of another deputy, Yahya al-Saud, al-Badri took a call from a listener whose sole comment on the event was a rather oblique joke mocking the kind of masculine ‘power’ represented by al-Saud:

CALLER: Sir – I walk around Amman, and I see signs saying “Hairdresser for Men”…

HANI AL-BADRI: “Hairdresser for Men” – what’s wrong with that?

C: Sir, that’s inaccurate. They should say “Hairdresser for Males

HB: Why?

C: We don’t have any men here, sir, honestly

(Source: Wasat al-Balad recording, Radio Fann, 4 December 2014.)

Jokes like this are frequent on al-Badri’s programme. But they would be simply unimaginable on al-Wakeel’s. al-Wakeel, indeed, fields very few calls at all that aren’t some kind of requests of assistance in the first place – in sharp contrast with al-Badri, who allows much more critical comments and humour on part of his callers even if they don’t directly contribute to his heroic dramatic arc of problem resolution. Moreover, al-Badri himself makes similar jokes frequently, and presents himself as an ‘ordinary citizen’ not unlike his faithful callers – again, different from the accessible-yet-authoritative al-Wakeel, whose very reason for fame is that he has more power, more connections than the poor citizens asking him for aid. Thus the way in which al-Badri uses language allows his callers more scope for creative resistance and challenges to power. These challenges are still rather restrained, still rather oblique (this is Jordan, after all). But they’re nevertheless possible, to a much greater degree than in programmes where the host reserves all authority for himself.


Hani al-Badri of Radio Fann building rapport with his listeners. Jordanian radio, a platform for peace and love? Well, at least it can be.


If Jordanian radio language is about power, it’s a very everyday kind of power. It doesn’t involve lofty debates about human rights or democratic values. It doesn’t involve sabre-rattling speeches or gunfights between armed militias. Even as part of the Arabic media scene, it is a little marginal, a little limited, compared to flashy Ramadan serials or Egyptian blockbuster films or reality shows spurting out of Lebanon and the Gulf.

But that doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high. There are debates and contests and dramatic arcs and power plays. The most ordinary issues, the most inconsequential personal spats are scaled up when heard by an audience of many. Air time is valuable; callers might wait hours or days for their slot on the air. In the two or three minutes that they eventually get, they are in the spotlight. How they speak, what they say, how they present themselves in those few minutes matters a lot. Not, perhaps, a life-or-death difference – but still important. It might net you a job, or bring momentary social media fame, or just give you the one opportunity to push back against authority you might not find otherwise, and nudge things in the right direction.

There are two ways, I think, in which we can think about the relevance of ‘everyday’ practices like these. First, there is the thematic aspect. These are links made outside of language, outside of talk – the indexical links, if you will – to themes that encompass grander subjects and aspects of life on a wider scale. And they are important subjects, as we have seen: themes like nationalism, gender equality, religious rights.

Second, there is what can be termed the metaphorical aspect. What interesting, exciting thing can we compare these practices to? On the surface, the topics may still be too ordinary, too quotidian – but the techniques and strategies through which they are framed and contested certainly aren’t. Dramas, theatre, power plays. Adding the necessary flair can feel a little artificial; as an analyst, one might feel more or less comfortable with this – and this is certainly a topic that can be discussed further. But metaphor is, again, another possible way to show how apparently boring everyday affairs are actually quite interesting.

It is this second part, the techniques and strategies of language, that deserve more attention in our discussions of media generally, and media in the Arab world in particular. Media form impacts these techniques and strategies in a very real way. A Facebook comment fight between random friends-of-friends is a very different beast from a round-table TV debate involving carefully picked analysts and spokespersons. It matters if the contests are being conducted on radio, or TV, or Twitter, or over audiocassettes (for the latter, see this fascinating article by Flagg Miller – though with fair warning for jargon density). But that’s already the subject of my next post.

PhD Findings (1): Radio and Power

The Unwritten Standard

Before I began my field research in Jordan, my greatest concern was how to deal with what I anticipated to be the variability of language spoken on radio. Unlike MSA, colloquial Arabic – spoken in every  human interaction – does not have the force of codified grammars and centuries of written precedents behind it. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s not rule-bound, just like any other language system.) There might, then, be a bit more flexibility in how Jordanian dialect is used on the air: creative ways in which people use dialect forms, perhaps, for people to mark their (actual or desired) social origin, or make claims to represent certain groups or stand for particular political positions.

Or so I had imagined.

Over the past few months, as I’ve engaged in more and more depth with the Jordanian radio field, I’ve realized that, with regard to the language you can hear spoken across the spectrum of Jordan’s Arabic-language radio stations – from the community-oriented ones, to the ‘hip contemporary’ ones, to those who aim at more conservatively nationalist audiences, to those that promote an Islamic (and Islamist) social (and political) orientation – there’s not really that much of a difference.

When talking to radio professionals, I most commonly heard that there was a time – in the murky past of the first years of the 21st century – when this was not yet so. A time when, in a media field newly opened to broadcasting beyond that of the government’s official voice, radio presenters were not yet quite sure how to engage their audiences. Many turned to Lebanon as a model; exposure to Lebanese dialect was common through satellite television, and its Levantine roots made it closer to Jordanian speech styles than (for example) Egyptian.

But such voices  sounded foreign – at the very least; if not outright fake – in the mouths of Jordanians. Through the years, “Jordanian” accents gained more prominence; now you hardly hear Lebanese-speaking presenters anymore (except on that admirable holdout that is Sawt al-Ghad). Still, it was a very specific kind of “Jordanian” that came to be considered the norm: namely, that based on the dialect of Amman.


(A vista from Tlaa’ al-Ali, West Amman)

This is a familiar pattern from developments in other Arabic-speaking countries with media that use colloquial language (most famously, Egypt). The dialect spoken in the capital comes to be considered as a kind of “non-standard standard,” or “prestige” dialect (these are all terms from Arabists that have written about the issue) – presumably because, by speaking like a capital dweller, you’re that bit closer to becoming one. Being a capital dweller, in a highly centralized country, brings all sorts of social and economic perks (or at least it is assumed that it does). More, given a general flow of people into the capital, people from outside it are much more likely to speak in the way that’s spoken in the capital than vice versa; and so a critical mass develops which gives the dialect features of the capital that extra edge over those that might be encountered outside it.

What kind of language, then, is this radio Ammani? What features are there to distinguish it and place it among dialects in Jordan and the kinds of Arabic spoken in Levantine countries more generally?

In this regard I’m going to consider in particular the work of Enam al-Wer on the “dialect of Amman,” and then move on to look at what the implications of using this particular style of speech on Jordanian radio might be. Even the strongest norms are, after all, associated with particular preconceptions and ideologies. And this is precisely the part where they become  interesting.

The Capital’s Dialect

Amman’s dialect has been examined in the most detail by the Essex linguist Enam al-Wer. Her writings include studies both on Ammani’s history – its emergence as a koine, or a language variety that comes out of contact between several different varieties or dialects – and its present status and features.

Amman’s position as an economic and administrative center is relatively new; it dates only to the partitioning of Jordanian territory into its own state entity in the beginning of the 20th century, and the city can hardly boast of a history as illustrious as other urban centers in the area – such as Jerusalem, Beirut, or Damascus. In line with this, the development of Amman’s own prestigious dialect has also been on a much shorter timescale than in these other cities; and it is closely intertwined with Jordan’s recent socio-economic history.

al-Wer brings together the factors involved in a recent book contribution (available online as a draft: LINK); I will only summarize them here. The first social stratum to function as an elite in Amman were members of prominent Levantine families that gravitated to the town from the 1920s onwards (after it became the capital of the Emirate of Transjordan, newly established under British tutelage after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire). The population later swelled with immigrants from elsewhere in (Trans)Jordanian territory, as well as Palestinians (especially following the wars in 1948 and 1967). From the 1970s onwards, policies were in place aimed explicitly at the “Jordanization” of public sector posts. These gave many “Transjordanians” – ie., members of families who could claim origins from localities somewhere from within Transjordanian territory – chances for social and economic advancement. As a consequence, some dialect features associated with speech styles of “Transjordanian” origin also gained more prestigious associations.


Amman’s “koine,” though, didn’t develop from local dialects alone. As al-Wer shows, the social standing of families that brought their own styles of speech from other urban centers in the region gave the developing “Ammani dialect” a decidedly urban Levantine flavor. (In the Levant, as in many other regions where Arabic is spoken, the firmest dialect distinctions are between language spoken in cities versus language spoken outside of cities; often dialects spoken in two cities a hundred kilometers apart will have more features in common than dialects spoken in a rural (or, even more so, a nomadic-Bedouin-tribe-inhabited) area just outside one of these cities.) This, in contact with dialects spoken by ‘native Transjordanians,’ produced a blend of features quite unlike any other in the region – a dialect that can safely be termed as specific to Amman, and the generations of people that by now had been born and raised in the city.

One distinct quirk of Ammani is that the language one hears is split according to the gender of the person speaking it. The sound /q/ – pronounced as an uvular stop in Classical and Standard Arabic, but with a range of pronunciations in equivalent words in different Arabic dialects – is especially telling. In words that count as ‘colloquial’ or ‘dialect’ words – ie., those that Ammanis consider everyday or informal enough not to require a Standard Arabic pronunciation – a female speaker would pronounce this sound as a glottal stop: [ʔ], in the International Phonetic Alphabet. This is also how one would expect to hear /q/ pronounced in Jerusalem (or Beirut, or Damascus). Male speakers, by contrast, usually prefer to use [g] (voiced velar stop; much the same as the ‘hard g’ in English) – which is a common pronunciation in many Bedouin dialects, but also in dialects native to Transjordan.

So, for example, the word قهوة qahwa “coffee” would be pronounced ‘ahwe – with a glottal stop at the beginning – by an Ammani woman, and gahwe by an Ammani man. (Final a often changes to e in Levantine Arabic dialects, something Arabists call imaala (literally “slanting”).) And a word such as أقول aquul “I say” becomes b-‘uul (with a glottal stop, and the colloquial present indicative marker b- at the beginning) for women, and b-guul for men.

(As a quick aside, a short personal anecdote to demonstrate how strongly this gender patterning is considered to be the hallmark of Jordanian / Ammani. When I was still at the beginning of my fieldwork, I tended to use [ʔ] when I spoke Arabic, modelling myself on Palestinian and Egyptian pronunciations of the kind I’ve been most exposed to through my years of studying the language. The automatic reaction of many people, when they heard me speak this way, was that I’d learned Arabic in Lebanon – which I’d never visited in my life (though I had lived in Amman for two months a few years back). In other words, it was simply unimaginable for the people I’d spoken to for me to have picked up the [ʔ] pronunciation in Jordan, where obviously as a male I should have been using [g].)

Pronunciation of /q/ might be the characteristic that is most often (and most easily) picked upon when talking about differences among Arabic dialects. But there are also other features that make Ammani distinctive. Another sound with a similar kind of gender split is j (the sound in e.g. al-Jazeera): Ammani men often pronounce this as an affricate, [dʒ] – precisely as in English – while Ammani women invariably use a fricative, [ʒ] (a ‘softer’ sound, like in English measure). There are also specific ways in which vowels are pronounced; al-Wer goes on at some length about the details of this (if by some outlandish chance you’re a phonology enthusiast you can go check out her paper for the particulars; see pages 10-13 in the online draft PDF). Grammar, also, has features that can be heard in other dialects in the region (such as the very Palestinian use of final alone for negation) combined with others coming from different dialect areas, or even features that seem to be novel inventions for Amman alone: like using, for example, -kum for the second person plural bound pronoun, which fits with the Standard Arabic version but contrasts with most neighboring dialects (which would prefer either -ku or -kun).

All these features come together to create a form of Arabic with clear roots in existing Levantine dialects, but which is also distinctive to Amman. No surprise, then, given the status and prestige of the capital, that it would also become the language used in new  media enterprises that have emerged in Jordan over the past few decades.

Ammani Norms

Media, of course, never just presuppose a given linguistic reality from which they draw their communicative resources. They also help construct language: their texts circulate broadly, and provide models for speech and interaction which media audiences relate to in various ways.

It’s probably a stretch to claim that commercial radio stations played a role in ‘normatizing’ Ammani. Local understandings of a set Ammani dialect likely had force long before the liberalization of Jordan’s media field in the early 2000s. (al-Wer, again, indicates this, in her generational analysis of how distinctly Ammani features came together.) Still, once an Ammani speech style turned up on the airwaves, it’s easy to see how it might have spread, as a kind of informal standard: a way for presenters to interact with audience in a way that (they consider) will make them commonly understood, as well as project a sense of “Jordanian-ness” that sounds more authentic – or, to use a word favored by my contacts, “spontaneous” – than using a dialect that could clearly be associated with some other country-level variety of Arabic.

Presenters might draw, then, on language they know – natively, if they’re Ammanis; otherwise, as the ‘standard’ medium of communication used in interactions in the capital, or more accurately the kind of language used in such interactions by people who provide desirable social models. But simply by using it in the context of radio, they’re also transforming it, by making it acceptable as a media norm. Radio performances (and they are, always, performances) thus construct language – not necessarily by inventing a style outright, but by placing some locally relevant style into a particular context, and producing at least at least a tacit sense that it is appropriate for this context.


Always, though, it’s Ammani that we hear. All of Jordan’s radio stations aiming for more than just a local audience are based in Amman; and the linguistic asymmetry here mirrors quite perfectly the social, economic, and political asymmetries that bedevil Jordan. Even if speaking, or at least understanding (if only by necessity), Ammani is common to most Jordanians, the differences remain. There’s still the sense that those brought up with the dialect natively are relatively closer to the Norm – and with it, the kind of speaker, the kind of person, that one might want to be – than others.

An article by Myriam Achour Kallel – available online here; in French only – describes the situation on a Tunisian radio station that uses “colloquial Arabic” in pretty much identical terms. The dialect of the capital – Tunis – is privileged over all others, even in situations when using regional speech might perhaps attract more listeners (the radio station Kallel examines has a significant number of listeners hailing from one particular region outside the capital). The station’s producers give various, mostly linguistic, justifications for this practice, but they tend to avoid the most fundamental issue: namely, the political and socio-economic asymmetry between a Capital and its Regions that made the Tunis dialect preferred and desirable in the first place.

As in Tunisia, so in Jordan. Radio, as a media form, focuses on simulating interaction: between presenters and their guests, presenters and audiences, either directly through call-ins or indirectly through addressing them by speaking ‘into the ether.’ (Or something in between, when patching together different media in order to keep the channels of communication open – for example, when reading out and responding to text messages or online comments.) When speaking Arabic, for this not to sound fatally stilted, a colloquial variety is really the only choice. At that level, though, there is no longer any kind of codified or written standard. So people’s decisions are driven by other kinds of evaluations: based, ultimately, in social convictions and ideologies, and highly revealing of local hierarchies of value – between kinds of language, and the kinds of people believed to speak it.

The Unwritten Standard

Lebanese on the Air

These days it’s hard to find a radio station in Jordan that does not present its programmes in colloquial Arabic. But it was not always so. The liberalization of the broadcasting field only dates back to the early 2000s, when new audiovisual laws allowed radio stations to be established in Jordan outside the purview of the state broadcasting corporation – which had vastly preferred MSA and only allowed colloquial Arabic in a few cordoned-off programmes.

The linguistic situation, nowadays, seems relatively stable: most broadcasters use a speech style based on the colloquial Arabic of Amman, a kind of ‘soft standard’ with distinct features that mark it out as distinctly ‘Jordanian’ within the broader context of Arabic dialects in the Levantine region. Still, Ammani is not the only accent one can hear when flipping through Jordan’s radio channels. Regional stations and programmes dedicated to local genre traditions – such as broadcasts of Bedouin poetry – both exhibit dialectal variety, as do stations directed at Jordan’s immigrant communities (such as the Iraqi radio station al-Rasheed). As far as channels aiming for a broader audience are concerned, though, the dialect one is most likely to come across is Lebanese.

Lebanese colloquial in Jordan is represented, these days, most prominently by the radio station Sawt al-Ghad (“The Voice of Tomorrow”) – and, in particular, its morning show host, Jessy Abu Faisal. In what follows, I’ll examine Abu Faisal’s programme in more detail, and look at what speaking – and indeed being – Lebanese on Jordan’s airwaves today might mean.

Jessy Live

There are very few female radio hosts working in Jordan’s prime time morning slot. This alone makes Jessy a bit exceptional, along with her linguistic distinctiveness. Her programme, called Jessy Live, ticks off most of the morning show genre boxes – speaking over music, reading messages sent in by listeners, commenting on recent events – though she also offers some sections (such as horoscopes and a few minutes set aside for “meditation”) that might not fit too well in the decidedly masculine frame of self-presentation of other hosts. There is also a short section set aside for “sports” – for which, as usual in Jordan, read “football”; presented, notably, not by Jessy herself, but rather  by a male journalist through a phone call.

(Jessy Abu Faisal, talking to a young guest in her studio – a girl suffering from bleeding in her left eyelid – before she comes on air during her programme. Note especially the ‘framing’ of the clip with canned recorded phrases in English)

The call-ins, too, have a decidedly ‘lighter’ feel. Many involve (mostly male) listeners with music requests; others might be on topics that Abu Faisal happens to be discussing. There are no heavy problem-solving ‘dramas’ here, though; no requests for mediating with authorities. There might be limits, then, to the kinds of roles allowed to this particular female host within the boundaries of her broadcast genre.

A Lebanese Host

Abu Faisal’s radio career began in her home country, as a presenter on Mirage, a radio station that belonged – as she states in one interview – to “a friend of her father’s” (and defunct since 1997). She has stated that she faced “difficulties” at the beginning of her career in Jordan – going on a decade, now – but also that she and her listeners had “adapted quickly” to each other.

What’s interesting here is that, despite her lack of familiarity with Jordanian dialect, there was never any question that Abu Faisal would be presenting her programme in anything other than colloquial Arabic. Here, at least, speaking “the people’s language” – rather than a stilted, formal Arabic style – was far more crucial than the details of what this language actually was. It is much easier, in other words, for the presumed gap between presenter and audience to be bridged by ‘training one’s ear’ each to the other’s dialect – rather than adopting a presumably shared standard. (It helps, of course, that many Jordanians are familiar with Lebanese speech; in terms of their presence in (pan-)Arab media, Lebanese speech styles are second only to Egyptian – and all the more so in the Levant, where Lebanon is the country likely boasting the greatest media diversity.)

Abu Faisal’s accent includes all the features one would expect from a Lebanese radio host. Among the traits distinctive of Lebanese, there is vowel-raising – from a to e, in particular, so nees rather than naas “people” – as well as the use of -kun and -(h)un as 2nd- and 3rd-person plural pronouns (“you” and “them”), respectively (the Ammani / Jordanian standard has -kum (sometimes -ku) and -(h)um here).

There’s also the way certain words are pronounced, especially those with q – a phoneme pronounced unambiguously as a uvular stop in Classical / Standard Arabic but a favored phonetic shibboleth for contemporary Arabic dialects (and academic studies of them). There is a kind of “formality bar” in conversational Arabic as to which words retain the Classical pronunciation of this phoneme, and which use a colloquial version (something which Hassan Abd el-Jawad has termed lexical conditioning). In normative Ammani, the colloquial variant is split by gender: men use g instead of q, while women use the glottal stop. By contrast, in Lebanon – as in Syria, and the more prestigious Palestinian dialects – it’s the glottal stop throughout.

Since Abu Faisal is female, this might not make much of a difference – but in fact, along with the lack of gender split, other Levantine dialects also tend to set the “formality bar” much higher than Ammani / Jordanian does. That is, words that in Jordan would still be pronounced in the ‘formal’ manner use the ‘colloquial’ version in Lebanese. So one hears Abu Faisal say Taa’a for “energy” and Ta’s for “weather” – both of which are much more likely to be pronounced Taaqa and Taqs, respectively, retaining the formal q, if the dialect being aimed for is ‘Jordanian.’


(“Jessy Abu Faisal.” Source: Sawt el-Ghad Jordan’s Twitter page – LINK)

Marks of Abu Faisal’s Lebanese identity are also evident in the content of her programme. She might affirm her origin by playing a song describing her home country – commenting, to her listeners, that this is “so you hear something about Lebanon.” Listeners also take it up themselves: by sending in messages, for example, saying “good morning” to “Jessy,” and an added greeting to كل الوطن العربي : “the entire Arab homeland”, or “all Arabs / Arab lands” – with the implication that any common ground between the presenter and the Jordanians who listen to her can only be one that goes beyond national borders. Clearly, both host and audience are well aware of her Lebanese-ness – in language and beyond.

Speaking Spontaneously

There are many meanings one could draw from Abu Faisal’s on-air performances. The classic stereotype, in Jordan, is that Lebanese speech styles – and, indeed, Lebanese identity itself – have feminine or feminized associations. In this context, it’s perhaps not strange that the most prominent Lebanese voice on Jordanian radio is also female. As we’ve seen, this has implications for the morning show built around “Jessy” as a presenter-character: allowing certain topics and styles of interaction (horoscopes), while foreclosing others (sports, bureaucratic mediation). Ideas about gender implied by the genre might, then, be just as conservative as its formal limitations – reflected in aspects such as music choices, and interactional style, as I’ve argued on this blog previously.

There’s another dimension to all this, though, that may be just as important. Pretty much all radio professionals I’ve spoken to during my time in Jordan have emphasized the value of spontaneity among radio presenters. Using colloquial Arabic on air is valued as long as the language you use is your ‘natural’ way of speaking: not formal, not stilted, not sourced from previously prepared ornamented texts, but rather focused on the interaction itself, addressing listeners and interlocutors like one would (presumably) normally do in a conversation.

Especially deserving of criticism, here, are those who betray this spontaneity by adopting a style of speech that is not their ‘native’ one: in particular, Jordanian presenters that – and this was always presented to me as a thing of the past, an obsession that Jordan’s airwaves have by now been purified from – tried to adopt Lebanese colloquial features in order to emulate Lebanese media personalities, and by association appear more ‘hip’ or ‘modern.’ Lebanese, in the mouths of Jordanian presenters, feels “fake”; worse, even, than formal Arabic, since it cheats its addressees by pretending to be spontaneous even though it really isn’t. (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that, for a Jordanian presenter not brought up in Amman, adopting a normative ‘Jordanian’ – i.e., Ammani – accent might be just as “fake” as trying to speak Lebanese.)

Jessy, on the other hand, can at least be presumed to be “spontaneous” in speaking Lebanese. After all, it is “her” colloquial, the dialect she – as a woman with Lebanese origins – is supposed to claim and revel in as her own. (Leaving aside, as well, the fact that “Lebanese” here is of course also only a label given to a very particular speech style prestigious in Lebanon, rather than something that all Lebanese would speak normally.) Still, we can wonder whether the association of “Lebanese” with “fakery” might not be strong enough to overcome this particular biographic detail.

We’re firmly in the realm of meanings and ideas here; “metapragmatics,” following Michael Silverstein, ideas about language use that take on a life all of their own quite apart from the actual linguistic reality (though they may then come back to exert influence on this reality merely by virtue of their force as ideas). It would make sense, though, considering the complex of values revolving around distinct kinds of colloquial Arabic in Jordan, and the particular situations in which Lebanese and its speakers tend to occur. It may well be difficult to claim your dialect is ‘spontaneous’ or ‘authentic’ when the context where it’s heard most often is that of flamboyant media stars and foreign television dramas.

Lebanese on the Air